News and Tribune

November 14, 2013

Henry Bain’s story gets the spotlight in New Albany

Local play to highlight man’s life, city's black history

By AMANDA BEAM
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY — As 2013 comes to a close, so do most of the Bicentennial celebrations for the city of New Albany.

Throughout the year, the rise of the river town has been examined. Important figures have been discussed. Historical events have been highlighted.

Yet, for the most part, New Albany’s past as recorded in old newspaper headlines and antiquated books remains the tale of white America. Other than their involvement in the Underground Railroad, blacks in the city have often been ignored.

Writer Larry Muhammad wants to change this. Opening today weekend at St. Mark’s Stage on Spring, his newest play, “Henry Bain’s New Albany,” fills in some of history’s voids by showing how local black men and women contributed at the turn-of-the-century to the river community.

“Black history here is kind of focused on the Underground Railroad. It was a big part of New Albany’s identity. But it kind of stops there — the story of black people,” Muhammad said. “This is a continuation of the Underground Railroad story 50 years more.”

Set in New Albany’s centennial year of 1913, the production revolves around the life of Henry Bain. Most well-known for his tasty sauce, the head waiter of Louisville’s elite Pendennis Club actually became a Hoosier in 1899 after marrying Southern Indiana socialite Daisy Welsh. Soon, Bain began to invest in his new town, eventually helping to start Mill City Cotton Mills, New Albany’s first black manufacturing business.

Little information on Bain’s life is readily available. Still, for the play, Muhammad needed to research both the man and historical period extensively. In 2008, he had written a piece on Bain for the Courier-Journal, which provided him with some vital background.

But more was needed.

Frequent visits to the Indiana Room at the New Albany Floyd County Public library yielded some newspaper accounts of the time. In addition, it introduced Muhammad to local historian Shirley Wolf, who helped locate other source materials.

Being awarded the inaugural Arts Council of Southern Indiana Thomas Keith Peterson Fellowship, a writing grant, also allowed the playwright some additional funding for his efforts.

“Just about everything in the play is documented. I took a little poetic license I guess. But just about all of the characters are historical figures,” Muhammad said.

All of his research and leg work in the end paid off with a historically accurate depiction of the time period that shows both the opportunities, and the inequality, faced by black residents. With a finished script, Muhammad sought out New Albany resident J.R. Stuart to direct the play. Casting was then held for the 10 roles.

“As a white member of New Albany, when I got this script I was shocked about this history I knew nothing about that happened right here, all around us,” said Stuart. “It’s full of historical data that’s not bland, boring history. It comes alive because it’s talking about everything that is relevant all around us.”

Audience members familiar with local history may also notice some familiar characters on stage. Famed tenor Roland Hayes, long rumored to be a relative of Bain, and former slave turned Union Army nurse Lucy Higgs Nichols are represented.

“She was this wonderful, wonderful gutsy lady,” said Louisville resident Karen Edwards-Hunter, the actor who plays Nichols. “[The play] raises awareness of the contributions of African-Americans. I think it can help bring the two races closer together just simply because knowledge is just so powerful.”

Stuart agreed.

“The historical perspective is fascinating and it’s an amazing time, capturing New Albany history 100 years ago. It’s eye-opening, and it will stagger people once they hear these stories,” he said. “These voices need to be heard. These people need to be celebrated. It’s all our history.”